Monday, April 13, 2020

Big Dirty Codder: Falmouth to Provincetown by Mountain Bike

It was 1980 something and our ancient powder blue Ford Grenada lurched along the highway with Grandpa Turner’s pop-up camper clattering along behind us.  The wilds of Vermont in our rearview mirror, we sailed down 93 toward Boston, and the Cape beyond.  Dark clouds on the horizon morphed into wave upon wave of severe thunderstorms with blinding rain and howling winds. It was a family travel nightmare if ever one was conceived.  An overmatched old car full of young family being chased by a restless pop-up camper. Whipped by the winds our trailer flicked the edges of the highway, like the tail of some angry cat.  The chain that anchored it to us clinked and clanked against the hollow metal of the trailer’s tow arm.  Pressed to the steering wheel and laser focused on captaining our calamity train through the storm my father was blissfully unaware that the pop up camper door was open and our camping gear was jumping ship into the New Hampshire countryside.  It was vacation time, and we were headed to the Cape.  Minus some cooking gear.

Every New Englander knows Cape Cod.  “Lobstah” rolls; steamed clams; scorching hot sand followed by surf induced ice cream headaches; sandy beaches and soul crushing traffic. And the bridges: Sagamore and Bourne welcoming weary travelers like slow-motion rollercoaster gateways to their summer vacation playground.  For my family, the Cape meant camping for a week next to one of the many ponds, and making forays to Provincetown or one of the local beaches. It was playing Life, Uno and Cribbage in the pop-up camper on rainy days.  It was slathering on No-Ad sunscreen and blistering our shoulders and noses in the summer sun.  It was shivering face down on the beach towel trying to recover from frolicking on shifting sandbars in the icy surf.

The world for tourists and passers-by is populated with motels, beaches, seafood shacks, and ice cream stands.  There are taffy pulls and trinket shops filled to the brim with t-shirts and seashell art.  It is a world of sand dollars, kites, beach towels, surfboards and the fried fruits of the sea.

But there is a whole other side to the Cape.  A world hidden between sandy hillocks in stands of scrub oak and pine.  A world where the casual tourist rarely ventures.  An “Upside Down” ala Stranger Things. Minus the demogorgons.

Into the Upside Down.

I got my first taste of the “other” Cape one early spring day when, desperate from some mountain biking, I drove to Falmouth to roll the sandy trails around Otis Air Force Base.  I was immediately taken with the smooth twisty singletrack, winding its way through thick brush under a high oak canopy.  Swooping from hill to hill, the trails spaghetti through an ample strip of woods between the four lanes of Route 28 and Otis. 

Trips to visit my stepfather’s family in Falmouth led to my discovery of more tendrils of singletrack and motocross double hidden in the woods. Soon I was able to string together thirty mile loops of bikeable trail.  The more I looked, the more trail I found. And some internet snooping indicated that Falmouth was no aberration.  The mid Cape was similarly stacked with singletrack byways.
And so a plan emerged. I mapped out a route starting in Falmouth that worked its way north, through Otis and along the canal, eventually turning East and snaking through the middle Cape all the way to Provincetown.  While most who bike on the mid-Cape take to the paved bikeway, I intentionally avoided it: jumping, where possible, into the woods and onto the dirt byways that spiderweb throughout the Cape.
The plan.
I talked my friend Brandon into joining me.  He was similarly intrigued by the amount of trails, and eager to see what the Cape had to offer. The plan finally came to fruition one late October morning when we said goodbye to a rental minivan and mounted our bikes on the edge of Falmouth.  A crystal blue sky and crisp air greeted us as we pedaled away from the center of town. We were soon rolling along the piney dirt byways that would take us to the very tip of the Cape.  Our excitement was palpable.

Cockpit view.
Through the woods between suburban backyards we rolled: first on fast flowy singletrack and then following a motocross doubletrack all the way to Otis. There we swooped through the woods, climbing to the top of signal hill where we admired the sun sparkling off the canal to our west.

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Forced to improvise by an unexpected high fence, we crossed the treacherously busy Route 28 on a large rotary, and wound our way through back streets down to the canal bikeway. The sun hung low on the horizon as we sped along asphalt along the Cape Cod Canal Bikeway under the Bourne and then Sagamore bridges, eventually climbing up away from the canal to Shawme-Crowell State Forest in the fading light.

As we set up camp we watched the sun and the temps plummet precipitously.  As I huddled in my hammock contemplating a dive into the cold air to cook dinner, Brandon pointed out that there was a pub less than a mile away. I was all for a warm fire and letting someone else do the cooking. With a baseball playoff game on TV, we filled our bellies with pizza and nachos and an unhealthy amount of beer- as one does when sheltering from the cold in a pub.

That night was downright frosty.  Cold nights can be especially brutal in a hammock, but my last minute purchase of an underquilt saved my life that night.  Strung under the hammock, it prevented the typical convective heat loss that sucks the enjoyment out of a night’s sleep.  It’s bulky (even bigger than my sleeping bag), but worth it when temps drop below 40F.   That night I slept warmly and soundly, which was no small feat given that I had previously struggled to stay warm in my hammock with nighttime temps in the high 50’s.

The next morning, after warming ourselves with several rounds of coffee, we set out onto more wooded byways to start the day. The trails were smooth and rideable, and we made good time.  We were ahead of schedule until we stumbled into a lair of motocross trails.   Ribbons of pitted sandy singletrack wound endlessly in upon themselves when they weren’t shooting straight up and down steep eskers.  Despair set in as we struggled to make any forward progress. Attempting to escape onto a nearby doubletrack we waded through waist deep briars pausing briefly to eat a powerbar lunch and lament my route choices.

The nightmare storm of thorny climbs subsided and we finally broke free onto a fast descent in a strip of woods alongside the highway, and then out onto a gravelly powerline trail.  Finding our way back into the woods we followed a long and slow descent on singletrack, savoring the delightful twists and turns on the buttery smooth trail. We emerged next to a large cranberry bog which had been flooded for the harvest. A mass of red berries bobbed on the water as we soaked in the sun and snacked on Gu.  

Cranberry bog.
As the afternoon waned, we found ourselves on more brilliant singletrack, snaking our way behind houses and through the campus of the local Community College.  After making a wrong turn we reached a dead end, and I started to climb off my bike. As I lifted my leg in the air to get it over my saddlebag a searing pain shot through my leg.   “ARGHH!” I yelled out as I crumpled to the ground with the worst pain in my leg I’d ever felt. The nightmare scenario flashed through my mind: I had ruptured a hamstring.  The ride was over and we were miles from any way home. 

I took a deep breath and slowly stretched out my leg underneath me. I relaxed, took more deep breaths and realized that the pain was subsiding.  It was just a cramp. We had been pushing hard all day, having a lot of distance to cover, and I had been neglecting my water bottle.

After a short rest, I gingerly mounted my bike again and we shot back onto trail.  With afternoon quickly passing by we decided to ditch a portion of planned singletrack and utilize the paved bikeway to make better time for our day’s destination: Nickerson State Park.  Disappointed but undeterred we retreated from the woods onto pavement.

The Cape Cod Rail Trail stretched out before us flat and smooth like a biking superhighway.  We put our heads down and hammered into the afternoon as the miles ticked away.  We stopped just off the trail to fuel up at Burger King where we crammed fries, Whoppers and some ill-advised one dollar nuggets into our eager bellies.

The one dollar nuggets fought back, but we pressed onward, making Nickerson just before nightfall. We had our choice of sites given the cold October air had chased the crowds away.  Had it actually been full, we learned that the park has an overflow area for bikers for those that roll in without reservations.   

I strung my hammock between some trees and Brandon and I got a fire going as the last light slipped out of the sky.  Warmer than the night before we both sat up for a while to enjoy the fire and relive the day’s adventures.

Rain arrived early that morning but cleared by the time we were ready to break camp and head out for our final day.  The sun peeked out as we covered the first ten miles on the rail trail, and our rain jackets went into the packs before our first stop for snacks.  Turning off onto the Nausettrail we finally spied the ocean. We were now into the Cape Cod National Seashore and its collection of sandy roads, winding trails and scraggly scrub oak. The planned route would take us through wooded trails all the way to Provincetown, and the ferry that waited to whisk us back to Boston.

The road that passed the lighthouse on Coast Guard Beach became a rough doubletrack, which in turn winnowed into a winding singletrack just wide enough for us to pass on bike. The forest closed in around us until vines and branches were pulling at our arms.  Just when it seemed the forest would swallow us whole, we popped out on a bluff high above the ocean.  Deep breaths of salty air filled our lungs and the immensity of the mighty Atlantic Ocean filled our sights.

Refreshed, and with the jungleschwack behind us, we set out on fast and flowy sandy singletrack.  It was straight out big ring riding as we bolted through the forest.  Despite making good time, it became painfully clear that in order to make the last ferry we would need to cut off more than half of the planned trail based route and make a B-line on Route 6 straight to the ferry.  Again, as had been the theme on the previous two days, my meticulously planned route would have to be shelved for the sake of keeping our schedule.  

We emerged from the wood back onto the rail corridor for one final rail trail ride, although this time we were met with deep unconsolidated sand.  Even with my three inch tires, I struggled to plod along.  Brandon wanted no part of it with his two inch hoops, and begged for a road detour.  We finally found our way to Route 6 where we zipped along in the ample room of the shoulder, for the last fourteen miles to Provincetown.  Heads down and into the wind we plodded along on the surprisingly hilly road, finally catching sight of Provincetown huddled in the inner arm of the Cape. Rolling into town, we left ourselves half an hour to eat, which was just enough time to breeze into the Lobster Pot, suck down a lobster roll, and board the ferry.

We made our escape by sea. The hum of the motors, the splashing of the wake, the howling wind as we churned through the waves lulled me into a quiet state of contemplation. With a belly full of lobster, fresh memories and sun kissed cheeks I was that twelve year old boy coming back from the Cape again.  The only thing missing was that powder blue Ford Grenada. 

And of course all that cooking gear.

Here's the map for our route:

And here's my gear list:


Osprey Manta 28L Backpack
3L Reservoir 
BRS 3000T Light Camping Stove
Snow Peak Titanium Mug
Fuel Cannister
Wet Wipes
Large Ziplock Bags
Feed Bag (Granola, Dehydrated Milk, Coffee, Sugar, Soup Mix, Cheese)

Defiant Zipperless Frame Pack (Large)
Spare Tire
Chain Lube
Hand Pump
Co2 Cannister
Extra Stans Notubes Fluid
Rear Flashing Light

Revelate Designs Sweetroll Handlebar Bag (Medium)
Black Diamond Liquid Point Shell Jacket
Eddie Bauer Stormdown Hooded Jacket
Waterproof Pants
Eddie Bauer Synthesis Hoodie
Lafuma 30F Sleeping Bag
Potomac Hammock Underquilt
Wool Socks x 2
Wool Underwear x 2
Convertible Short/Pants
Long Sleeve Baselayer

Revelate Designs Mountain Feedbags (x2)
1 x Water Bottle filled with Electrolyte Mix
Snacks (Almonds, Gels, Waffles, Cliff Bars, Chocolate)

Revelate Designs Egress Pocket
Charger Bank Backup Battery
Watch Charger Cord
Phone Charger Cord
Bag Balm

Revelate Designs Pika Seat Bag 
Hennessy Hammock – Asymmetrical Expedition Zip w/ Rainfly
Hennessy Hammock Snakeskins
1” Webbing x2
Rappel Rings x4
Carbiners x2

Anywhere Bicycle Attachment Water Bottle Mount (Front fork)
Blackburn Outpost Cargo Cage
Nalgene Bottle


  1. Fantastic read! You are a great writer, and photographer! You took me on an adventure capturing the spirit of the Cape, biking in the back country, and how special beauty of all that is. Thanks.

  2. Excellent read! And super photos! You have a real way with words, Andy. Your imagery, metaphors, phrases and word choices make for a great adventurous journey!

    1. Much appreciated. Thanks for the kind words.